Greeting visitors on the New Jersey State Museum’s first floor is “Foundation@50: Celebrating Five Decades of Support.” While not the most lively of titles the exhibition is nevertheless about the life and lifeblood of the museum.
The foundation is the New Jersey State Museum Foundation, which was formed in 1968 as the Association for the Arts of the New Jersey State Museum “by a group of dedicated, philanthropically minded patrons to provide support for the museum’s then small but growing collection in fine and decorative arts,” museum materials state.
What is not mentioned is that members included internationally known New Jersey-based artist Ben Shahn and Barbara Harrison, a New Jersey art collector and once publisher of a Paris art press. Both influenced the museum’s collection.
Also missing is the reason it was founded. Since the museum is a program of the state, its budget is determined by the state. But an independent nonprofit partnering with the state can raise the money and accept donations for museum support — funds that go directly to the museum rather than to the state. And that is what happened.
As the museum text tells viewers: “In 1973 the association changed its name to the Friends of the New Jersey State Museum to reflect its expanded role in supporting all areas of the museum.” And the organization began fundraising for archaeological and scientific excavations, exhibition support, catalog publications, planetarium equipment, artifact conservation, and to address other needs. The group also took over the management of the museum’s gift shop.
The latest name change took place in 2015 when it became the New Jersey State Museum Foundation to “more clearly define its critically important public/private partnership with the State Museum.”
And the Foundation@50 exhibition is designed to bring attention to “the millions of dollars raised and tens of thousands of volunteer hours contributed in service to the museum and its visitors from New Jersey and beyond.”
The exhibition “includes objects, artifacts, and specimens which have been added to the museum’s collection through the support of the Foundation and is but a small portion of the contributions made by the Foundation.”
While the exhibition mixes up its various objects, it’s easier to discuss in categories.
The foundation’s recently acquired artworks include several important 20th-century and contemporary American artists with New Jersey connections.
There is Neil Welliver’s 1973 silkscreen “Brigg’s Meadow.” The artist was born in Pennsylvania and studied at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art before studying at Yale with Joseph Albers.
As the New York Times writes, “Welliver strove to paint representational images without sacrificing the formal innovations that the Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning had introduced to modern painting.”
His paintings of Maine landscapes were what he called “places of power — these places are often nondescript corners, small things, not the big 19th-century vistas of the Hudson River School. I can’t put their meaning in words, but I try to do it in paint.”
Welliver, who died in 2005, is well represented at the State Museum. It owns a large painting that is hung in the gallery next to a painting by one of his former students, prominent New Jersey artist Mel Leipzig. The work was acquired by the Friends to honor the late long-time curator Zoltan Buki.
“Muhammad Ali” is a portrait by famed American photographer Gordon Parks, who had also been a resident of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
The museum’s text note regarding the Life Magazine photographer’s approach is apt: “The shot is tight and intimate. Parks treated the image so that each bead of sweat exuding from Ali’s body and face becomes a telling accumulation of determination and survival.”
Participating in securing the photograph for the museum were the New Jersey Black Administrator’s Network and the Bellevue Gallery in Trenton.
Close by is the late Princeton-based artist Naomi Savage’s 1966 silver-plated copper photographic engraving “Enmeshed Man.”
A text statement attributed to Peter Bunnell, the late Princeton University historian of photography, says that Savage “extended the photographic medium by her presentation of the photo etched plate itself. A simple act but in its generosity she has brought to the medium a kind of topographic photographer, which modulates form in three dimensions with a variety of metallic surfaces and tones.”
Bunnell also credits Savage with providing support for other women artists in an era when the art world was mainly male. The acquisition was supported by a fund by the Governor of New Jersey Purchase Award.
Another visual work is Betye Saar’s 1976 mixed-media piece “East of the Sun West of the Moon.”
The 92-year-old American artist of African ancestry says of her work: “I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.” The work was obtained by the Friends of the NJSM and dedicated to a former friends president, Princeton resident Fleury Mackie.
Other visual artworks include those by the noted American artists Romare Bearden, George Tooker, Elsie Driggs, and Stuart Davis.
In addition to the fine arts, there are decorative arts and objects reflecting New Jersey’s cultural history. That includes vases designed by Victor Durand, founder of the Vineland Glass works and a gold medal winner in the 1926 World’s Fair in Philadelphia.
There is also a circa 1900 vase by F. Kuhn of the Ceramic Art Company in Trenton. In addition to having an expertly crafted depiction of a woman’s face, the vase is gilded, or decorated in gold, and “adorned with enameled jewels, scrollwork, flowers.”
And look for Colonial and Federal-era silver works by Abner Reeder, a Hopewell native who received his training in Philadelphia and began a silver business in Trenton in 1788. Examples of his work include a tea set and a silver mug — also known at the time as a cann.
For young visitors, there is a circa 1919 Bisque Doll from the Fulper Pottery Company in Flemington, where ceramic dolls were produced while shipments from Germany were suspended during World War II. A mid-1950s Davy Crockett lunchbox was made by the Adco-Liberty Manufacturing Company in Newark. And there is the nose horn of the dinosaur Triceratops. It came to the museum when the museum’s paleontology team returned with it from a Friends of the Museum-supported 2014 trip to Wyoming and Montana.
This small exhibition showing off some of the museum’s new material and putting a light on those volunteering time, money, and artifacts is on view through Tuesday, January 29.
New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Tuesday Through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Donation requested. 609-292-5420 or www.statemuseumnj.gov